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The startup employee grinder

Startup culture as popularly described is a sham. You can read all the books you want on the subject, but the most successful companies build their culture from the ground up based on the same kind of learning cycle that they use on their customers. To succeed, you’re going to have to attract the best people - people who have a ton of options, many of which probably pay better than you do - and you’re going to have to find ways to keep them there.

Particularly in today’s market, if you’re not treating people well, they’re going to find something better. If you create a hustle-rich, competitive, aggressive environment that makes people feel like they’re under attack, they’re going to go find a place where they don’t. If you create a culture of long hours peppered with inflexible meetings, you’re going to lose the parents and carers who likely also happen to be your most experienced colleagues (as well as one where women, who largely still bear the brunt of parenting, are less likely to feel welcome). Your culture has to be one of deeply-held respect: not just of the expertise of every employee, but of what they bring as a three-dimensional human, and of their lives outside of work. If you think of people as a fungible resource, they’re going to feel it.

There’s no glory in working nights and weekends, and there’s nothing laudable about asking people to do so. Startups are a marathon, not a sprint. All your employees have lives beyond work. None of them are anywhere near as invested - in the literal, company-ownership sense, but also emotionally - as you are. As a founder, you might be burning the candle at both ends, but when the startup exits, you have the most to gain. Generous options help here, but if employees don’t feel like they have a strong say in the direction of the company, they’re little more than a lottery ticket from their perspective; a get-rich-quick scheme. If they lose trust in you, if they don’t have enough options to make a meaningful difference in their lives even in the event of an exit, or if the option price is so high that executing them is out of reach, or if there aren’t meaningful triggers, any kind of motivating factor that options could have brought is lost.

Even for founders, those long days come with diminishing returns: most knowledge workers can muster six hours of focused work at best. After that, anyone’s work is low-quality. In a small team, that means you’ve got to focus on building the smallest, simplest thing you can: a clearly-defined plan you know you can execute well with the time, team, and resources at your disposal. Because all of those things come at a premium, built-in ways to fail fast and learn quickly are incredibly important. A growth mindset and a nimble approach are more important than an “agile” one: paint-by-numbers scrum ceremonies aren’t going to save you, but short work sprints built around learning loops might.

That also means optimizing your workday for flow: removing meetings and interruptions so people can actually get work done. (Talking in meetings isn’t work; at best it’s a tactical huddle, and at worst it’s the performance of doing work.) As Steve Galevski put it in HBR a few years ago:

By cultivating a flow-friendly workplace and introducing a shorter workday, you’re setting the scene not only for higher productivity and better outcomes, but for more motivated and less-stressed employees, improved rates of employee acquisition and retention, and more time for all that fun stuff that goes on outside of office walls, otherwise known as life.

People have to think and reflect on their work to do it at a high quality. To be able to do that, they need time, emotional safety, and rest. If you create an environment of constant interruptions, long hours, and a lack of emotional safety, you’re shooting yourself in the foot and then some. Yet that’s exactly what a lot of startup porn advocates for, and where work has begun to go during the pandemic: a world where you can’t escape work, with numerous interruptions, long hours, and an underlying aggressive culture of hustle.

What modern startup employees are looking for is an inclusive place where they can do great work, live well, be treated with respect, and be compensated accordingly. It’s not hard, as long as you stop to really think and care about them. The catch is that many founders don’t.

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